An Interview with Bill Stevenson of the Descendents

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David Jarnstrom on Twitter: "Rad shot of #Descendents' Bill Stevenson at  @BlastingRoom by @ChipKalback! Read my @modern_drummer Q&A w/ Bill here:  https://t.co/alvuDqTltD… https://t.co/DLPksiJRBb"

For some of us, the pandemic hasn’t been all that…abnormal. For Bill Stevenson, the long time drummer and OG member of the legendary Punk Rock band Descendents, life has rolled on as if it’s almost…normal. Bill has been working as an audio engineer, spending time with his kids and backpacking. Not so bad, right?

Today, I’ve got Bill Stevenson with us for a chat. It was a pleasure to talk about Punk Rock, drumming influences, the OG Punk scene in the late 70s and early 80s, filling in for ROBO with Black Flag, his thoughts on social media and much more.

If you would like to learn more about the Descendents, you can head over to their website here, and their Bandcamp here. Cheers.

Andrew:
Bill, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. It’s been a weird year, hasn’t it? What have you been doing to pass the time?

Bill:
I’ve mainly been focused on writing music and lyrics. For me, other than the absence of playing shows, COVID life is not much different than normal life. I don’t really hang out in bars or restaurants much – even under normal circumstances. Oh, I also got back into backpacking, and have spent tons of time playing music with my son and daughter.

Andrew:
Tell us a but about your backstory. How did you get into music? What was the gateway so to speak?

Bill:
I have always loved music. My first favorite song, when I was about 4 or 5, was “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,” followed by “One Eyed, One Horned, Flying Purple People Eater,” and “My Friend The Witchdoctor.” I used to always tap and bang on things, so, eventually someone got wise and got me some drums. Soon after, they gave me an acoustic guitar, and that same month, I dug a hollow body electric bass out of my neighbor’s trash can.

Andrew:
As an artist and drummer, who were some of your earliest and most important influences?

Bill:
Early drumming influences were not really impressive drummers by conventional standards…Charlie Watts, Peter Chriss, Bill Ward. But once I found Punk Rock, then things really presented themselves…Robo, Don Bolles, John McCarthy, Jack Reynolds, DJ Bonebreak, Charlie Quintana. Nowadays, it’s more like Mitch Mitchell, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams.

The Descendents Keep Their Punk Lineage Alive With New Album – OC Weekly
Image Credit: Christina Preiss

Andrew:
For a short time, you played drums with Black Flag when ROBO left the group. How did you end up with the gig? What was it like working with Black Flag?

Bill:
Descendents and Black Flag were all very close – kinda like an extended family. When Robo began to have those problems with his visa (he is a Columbian citizen), I was always there to fill in. But eventually, I joined the group full time, and ended up recording the majority of their released music. Definitely learned a lot being in Black Flag. Those guys are a bit older than I, so I looked up to them as a kid. But I still prefer all the earlier stuff with the Chuck/Greg/Robo lineup.

Andrew:
You’re one of the founding members of the classic Punk band, Descendents. How did the band come together? What is the origin of the name?

Bill:
Frank came up with the name. I think maybe he was saying that we were “The Descendents of The Last…” Haha. Originally, it was just Frank and David Nolte (who was the youngest of 3 brothers in the band The Last) and 2 acoustic guitars.

Andrew:
The Descendents started in the late 70s. What do you remember about the Punk scene then? What was it like coming up around that time?

Bill:
I will never forget going to those first few Punk shows. I could not believe it…The Germs,  The Alley Cats, Go Gos, X, Weirdos, Fear, The Bags, The Plugz, The Last. On a given night, any 3 or 4 of these bands might be playing together, at The Masque…maybe 5 bucks to get in? It was the beginning of a new life for me. The people at these shows were mostly “Random people who did not fit in anywhere else” (like me), artists, music fans, and whoever else wanted to be there. The late 70s Punk scene ended my loneliness, and saved me from a miserable life. The music changed me in a profound way, and even at age 57, I am up most mornings craving the sound of those guitars, the energy, the freedom, the life.

Descendents to Release New Album on Epitaph this July | Culture Creature

Andrew:
The Descendents are considered one of the originators of Skate Punk and Pop Punk. What are your thoughts on that and how the scene has progressed over the years?

Bill:
I believe that most art is really a continuum. I don’t think we originated anything (with the possible exception of the “10 second song”?) I mean, If I needed to describe Descendents to someone, I could quite easily just say “1/3 The Last, 1/3 The Alley Cats, 1/3 Black Flag.” We were surrounded by greatness and originality, and we tried our best to sort of make our own thing out of it all.

Andrew:
I’ve always loved the lyrics of the Descendents, especially the later stuff. With themes touching on love, relationships, social and political issues, death and being nerdy, there really is something for everyone. As a song writer, what keeps you inspired? What’s changed over the years from when the band first started?

Bill:
We were just young teenagers when we wrote our first songs…so, yes, many things have changed. But for me, some things have not changed at all. I had always just written from my heart, and tried not to be afraid of airing a little dirty laundry when it seemed necessary in order to make the lyrical point. I still do just that…but I suppose the subject matter constantly changes, because we are constantly growing and changing as humans.

Andrew:
Looking back at the Descendents’ catalog, starting with Milo Goes to College all the way up to Hypercaffium Spazzinate, I feel that it all really holds up. Would you agree? What are your thoughts on the band’s output? What are your favorite moments?

Bill:
It’s kind of impossible to view it objectively…but…I would say we have each had our ups and downs as songwriters. In our band, each guy writes about 25% of the songs that go on a given album. So, there are an awful lot of variables going into a release. Since we have never had a “band sound” or an “agenda,” we just sort of float around and say “Here, I have a song”….“Ooo, that’s a cool one”.. etc…like that.

Punk Veteran Milo Aukerman of the Descendents on the Music of His Life |  Pitchfork

Andrew:
My favorite album by the Descendents has always been Everything Sucks. Coming off a long period of inactivity and having Milo back in the band, what was it like recording that record?

Bill:
Karl, Stephen and I had remained very active, touring and recording as ALL. And Milo had always been “close-by.” When he quits the band, he does it so he can focus on science, not because we have had arguments or whatever. SO, recording Everything Sucks was…just, very comfortable. No other way to put it really.

Andrew:
The Descendents have had a lot of starts and stops over the years. Was it difficult to put the band on hold when Milo left for college and again to become a biochemist?

Bill:
No, it was not difficult. Plus, we started ALL, so that we could just keep doing music without Milo. In that sense, everybody got what they wanted.

Andrew:
Let’s talk about the idea of “being punk.” What does Punk mean to you? Is it a genre? A way of life or an aesthetic?

Bill:
This really IS the question, isn’t it? To me, this is like asking about the meaning of life. I believe that the meaning of life is no more or no less than the meaning each persona signs to it. Punk Rock seems the same to me…I have never had a mohawk, or a studded jacket, but I love this music more deeply than anything in my life. Is it Politics? Is it “3 chords?” Is it fashion? Clothing? Who knows? The thing Punk Rock gave to me was the freedom to be myself, so I will probably think of Punk Rock as “being yourself” and not following other people’s rules or paths.

Filmage: The Story of Descendents/All' Review: Bill Stevenson and His Bands  - Variety

Andrew:
In the world we live in today, we are more or less dominated by the never-ending barrage of social media. How has this affected music as an artform? Is an artist’s ability to get their music out there hindered by all this, or helped?

Bill:
This sword definitely cuts both ways. It is obviously much easier now to set up tours, to network with bands in other towns, etc. So, that is a great improvement. But on the other side, when you release something…if you go online, every Tom, Dick, and Harry has suddenly become a music critic, so you get to hear all these random opinions about songs which are very deeply personal to you alone. This can be confusing. So, when we release music, I try to stay away from social media. I feel like it kinda pollutes me.

Andrew:
What are a few albums that mean the most to you and why?

Bill:
Neil Young – Harvest

Where do I start with Neil Young. His honesty, his vulnerable voice. Harvest is as close to a perfect album as I have ever heard.

Black Sabbath – Paranoid

This is the album that planted the seed in me – to crave those powerful guitars and bass, and those savage drums. This record raised the bar for me…once I heard Sabbath….KISS or Aerosmith were no longer good enough.

Ramones – Rocket To Russia

After Paranoid, I craved more of those guitars, and here they were…on a “Punk” record…yeah I guess I still don’t know what Punk really means. The Ramones are one of the greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll bands of all time. Hands down.

Andrew:
Aside from music, what else are you most passionate about and why? How do your other passions inform and inspire your music?

Bill:
What a great question for me to ponder…turns out that all my passion has funneled into music. I have had various hobbies (fishing, backpacking, boating) but at the end of the day, my whole life has become music. It is what I think about 95% of the time.

Interview with Descendents vocalist Milo Auckerman

Andrew:
Are you into vinyl? Tapes? CDs? Or are you all digital now? Where do you like to shop for music?

Bill:
I have to come clean here and be honest. I currently do not have a functioning turntable. I have sort of “moved with the times.” But, if ya wanna hear Cat Stevens, Cheap Trick, KISS, Stones, etc., I still have most of that old vinyl. Sadly, I have opted toward the convenience of the digital music world. Being an Audio Engineer, I am, of course, well aware that the vinyl records sound way better. Hehe.

Andrew:
Your most recent studio effort was Hypercaffium Spazzinate and band has a new single out this year called “Suffrage/On You.”  Once COVID-19 calms down, what’s next?

Bill:
2 things are next:

First – we will release an album of our very first songs (written mostly in 77-79) with the original Milo Goes To College Lineup. These are songs which never got recorded because we grew sick of them by the time we actually learned to lay well enough to record. In 2002, we got together and recorded them all. Great fun. Probably will come out in June 2021.

Second – We are about 1/2 way done recording a proper “new Descendents album” – probably will be released in early 2022.

Andrew:
Last question. In a world that’s been so confined by the constraints of big business and the alienation caused due to the internet age, how do artists find their footing these days? What advice would you have for younger artists?

Bill:
Yeah, exactly –  – DON’T READ THE COMMENTS, right? Just do your thing. Be honest. Don’t think about what other people say or do.

Descendents perform first Hermosa concert in two decades - Easy Reader News

Interested in diving deeper into the work of Descendents? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interview

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

Since he was a young child growing up on Long Island, NY, Andrew has always loved writing and collecting physical music. Present-day, Andrew is proud to share his love of music with the world through his writing, and the result is nothing short of beautiful: articles and interviews written by a music addict for fellow music addicts. Andrew lives on Long Island and works as a Horticultural Operations Manager by day and runs the Vinyl Writer Music website by night.
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